Rip Kirby

The First Modern Detective
Volume One, Complete Comic Strips 1946-1948

The renaissance in classic comic strip reprints makes me wonder about how something is determined to deserve to stand the test of time. We’ve wound up with such diverse material out there, some of which is well-known, while other properties have been mostly forgotten until selected for archival collection. Based on the variety of strips now available in print, it’s a combination of the following:

  • Some kind of name value, whether artist or property or, in few cases, proponent of the content (by which I mean, someone noteworthy thinks it’s great)
  • Availability of material
  • Ability to manage copyright issues, either by reprinting older, public domain content or dealing with the rights holder

Here, the drawing card is artist Alex Raymond, best known for the 30s Flash Gordon. After serving in the military in World War II, Raymond returned to the comic page with this, a sophisticated contrast to the then-popular hard-boiled detective. A major selling point is, according to the promo material, the ability to see the “full luxurious detail of Raymond’s brushwork.” (I quote this because I don’t have the chops to praise this old-fashioned, classically developed art so well.)

Rip Kirby cover
Rip Kirby
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To put the reader in the mood, the book opens with two essays. The first, by Tom Roberts, Raymond biographer, explores the creation of the strip in the context of detective fiction of the time and Raymond’s previous work. Brian Walker’s second piece concentrates more on key points of Raymond’s life leading up to the strip’s origin, accompanied by concept sketches and examples of advertising for the Rip Kirby strip.

Kirby is a civilized man’s man. He wears glasses and smokes a pipe, but his shoulders are broad and he’s eager for physical action. He’s both athlete and scholar, an ex-Marine capable of intellectual deduction, a writer of science books. He dates a model, and his sidekick is his butler, a weedy ex-con of some kind. The women are glamorous, dressed in the latest fashions, and might unfortunately wind up dead on his doorstep, as kicks off the comic strip run.

Stories range from love triangles among the rich and drug-addicted to old home week at college where a bacterial weapon is let loose among the students. Kirby’s kidnapped and tortured by the femme fatale Pagan Lee to get a secret formula, leading to a cat-and-mouse gangster game. An autograph-seeking group of delinquent kids cover for a blackmail ring. Later strips play up the soap opera, as Kirby’s gal pal gets jealous and disappears so he can hunt her down in Hawaii. The gang also winds up in Paris, chasing a black-market baby, and London, where a thrill-seeking deb is held captive on a gambling yacht.

The plots are outrageous, but the action is gripping and the art beautiful. The black-and-white is heavy on the shadow. Rip Kirby never had a Sunday page; it was more glorious with its eye-catching dark spots drawing the eye. Nowadays, that also provides a sense of a fancy bygone era.

This large hardcover has one very nice feature I haven’t noticed in strip reprint books before. The storylines are marked with chapter headings when they change. If nothing else, that’s a handy way to keep track of where you left off — unless you plan on wallowing in this portrait of another time long enough to read the whole book at once.

Regardless of why this strip was picked to publish, I had a fun time reading it and visiting its long-gone world. Rip Kirby is a more modern Thin Man, or what The Spirit would have been with a different upbringing in a very different part of the city. Just be careful around him — he’s a decent detective, but only after those involved in the case have been killed.


2 Responses to “Rip Kirby”

  1. The World Has Already Changed LinkBlogging: Women, Collectibility, Miniseries, and Gary Groth » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] it’s Peanuts. It’s one of the most successful strips in the history of the world. Why Rip Kirby would come out, I haven’t the slightest goddamn idea. Why would somebody buy a Rip Kirby [...]

  2. Alan Archer Says:

    In the 70s I discovered Alex Raymond via Flash Gordon and admired the drawing but was less thrilled with the storytelling. With Rip Kirby story and art were equals. I discovered Rip Kirby when Pacific Comics Club issued their folios of single stories. I was perhaps sixteen but knew quality when I saw it. The stories were sophisticated (mature) with authentic characterization. I always enjoyed how in Rip Kirby a villain could be portrayed more sympathetically in a later story. Pagan Lee, perhaps one of the greatest bad girls in comics since Dragon Lady is a good example. Also the gunman Joe Seven. I have been pleased (and somewhat surprised) to see the response to Kirby. I am glad that others have shared my appreciation for the mature art and scripts.




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